Review: Royal Ballet - Frankenstein - Royal Opera House

Performance: 4 - 27 May 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 5 May 2016

Royal Ballet - 'Frankenstein'. Steven McRae as The Creature. ©ROH 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper.

Perhaps, we should get ready for the Werewolf! Having already had Dracula at Northern Ballet, it was only a matter of time before a ballet choreographer alighted on Frankenstein as a source. And, with a track record that already includes a ballet about Jack the Ripper (Sweet Violets) and a prime candidate for the most terrifying of all fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel), it is hardly surprising that Liam Scarlett should be the one to add Frankenstein to the darker side of the Royal Ballet’s cellar; already so well stocked by Kenneth MacMillan.

So, it might seem as if a new ‘Hammer Horror’ genre of the art is upon us. However, Liam Scarlett’s adaptation of Frankenstein for ballet has nothing whatsoever to do with Boris Karloff on film, but rather as originally conceived, in the deep psychological expressionism of a gothic story told on a dark and windswept evening in Lord Byron’s rented villa on the shores of Lake Geneva: a story that the teller, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later to become Mary Shelley) would develop into a novel, two years later, in 1818.

Her novel is the very essence of expressionism; about love and companionship that gives way – through human frailty – to loss and isolation. Perhaps, one inspired by the author waking one morning – a year before that lakeside summer by Lake Geneva – to discover the death of her first child (as a week-old baby when Mary was just 17). It may be Hammer that invented the “horror” but Shelley’s novel builds an intimate world of terror through page-turning suspense and it is to Scarlett’s great credit that he, too, drives the narrative at a cracking pace in a ballet that is cleverly and sensitively crafted. There is little space to blink and not miss something of importance.

The gothic imagery of Frankenstein is essential and this is established superbly by John Macfarlane in set designs that have such architectural vitality and finely-designed detail that it is surprising to find that he did not train in architecture. Every scene is designed for a consistently effective impact, enhanced by David Finn’s varied lighting. Macfarlane’s semi-circular anatomy theatre at Ingolstadt University appears as a magnified section through a beautiful architectural model; and the wintery exterior landscape by Frankenstein Manor is a perfect visualisation of the interior desolation in the minds of Victor Frankenstein and the lonely, unloved creature of his creation.

Praise is also due to Scarlett for not going down the over-trodden route of using electronic music. Here is a proper, sweeping, rich orchestral score that is symphonic in its range of movements, melodies and motifs. Scarlett has used extant music by the American composer, Lowell Liebermann, before but this is their first commissioned collaboration and Liebermann has composed a flowing score that manages to be both descriptive and illustrative of character and narrative purpose in a filmic way but also music that could (and should) have a life of its own in the concert hall.

At 50 minutes, Act 1 takes a while to build the momentum and establishing story and characterisations takes up more stage time than dance. An early and slightly incongruous dance for the servants of the Frankenstein household seems to have little purpose but to provide something for the support ensemble to do. It also seemed somewhat inappropriate for the characters from both “upstairs” and “downstairs” to dance together Nonetheless, Scarlett is already a master at distilling a complex narrative into readily comprehendible dance theatre. Whilst knowing Frankenstein, the film franchise, might be a hindrance, there is no need to know the novel to understand this narrative.

Steven McRae gives a compelling and touching performance as the Creature. Hindered by the anonymity of a costume that reduces the opportunity for facial expressions, he nonetheless conveys the image of a lost and lonely child, forever doomed to solitary confinement by the uniqueness of his creation. Perhaps, the most touching scene of all is his duet with Guillem Cabrera Espinach (as William, the younger brother of Victor Frankenstein), seeking – and momentarily achieving – the playful companionship of a child with a similar mental age before it all ends in tragedy. That this murder and the following sequences are so harrowing is not only due to Scarlett’s fine direction and Liebermann’s outstanding score but also to superb acting, not the least from Meaghan Grace Hinkis as the dutiful and wronged Justine Moritz and Elizabeth McGorian as her mother (the Frankenstein’s Housekeeper) who sees her cold, authoritarian devotion to duty shattered in the callousness of mob injustice. A word, too, in praise of Thomas Whitehead’s strict academician at the Ingolstadt University; and for Bennet Gartside’s characterful interpretation of Alphonse Frankenstein.

Ballet does death, often. Few title characters make it to the end or, at least, not without the intervention of a spirit world (Giselle, Manon, La Bayadere, Romeo and Juliet to name the most obvious) but here – as in Shelley’s novel – hardly any named character remains alive at the close. This may not be Hammer Horror but it rivals any Tarantino film for the number of gruesome murders and suicides (not to mention a lynching). I counted eight – but I might have blinked!

At times I felt that Federico Bonelli and Laura Morera (as, respectively, Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza) were over-powered by the complexity of events around them. Their romance, developed since childhood (Sacha Barber and Skya Powney played the child roles) was effectively delivered through a series of pas de deux in each act. These ranged from a slightly formal, partnered duet in Act 1 (it reminded me stylistically of the pas de deux for Lensky and Olga in John Cranko’s Onegin) to an exceptional dance of true love at the beginning of Act 2. In fact, just as I was thinking that the only thing lacking was that momentous dance moment, Scarlett and Liebermann brought it on and Bonelli and Morera nailed it.

There were occasions – as in that first duet – that it seemed the choreography was from a familiar catalogue. Perhaps aided by the black frock coat worn by Bonelli, my mind wandered to the style of Onegin; and there were also visual prompts that made me think of MacMillan’s Mayerling, the epitome of expressionist ballet (although Scarlett is trying hard to match it). But, these appear to be deliberate references of significance rather than through any unconscious derivation.

Scarlett is pursuing his own genre of dramatic ballet with a psychological edge and – in so doing – he is adding to a unique heritage at the Royal Ballet. This is a remarkable achievement for Scarlett’s first full-length ballet and I feel sure that it is a “keeper”.

In rep until 27 May (with live relay to cinemas on 18 May)

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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